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The Conservative Commitment to Educational Socialism

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It would be difficult to find a better model of socialistic central planning than public (government) schooling. Public schooling entails a central board of elected or appointed government planners, either at a national, state, or local level. Attendance is mandated by compulsory-attendance laws. Government-approved schoolteachers, using government-approved textbooks, following government-approved curricula, pour government-approved information into the heads of government-approved children. School funding is through coercion; everyone — even those who don’t have children — has his money seized by government tax collectors in order to finance the public-school bureaucracy.

The results are as predictable as they are with every other socialistic scheme: an extremely shoddy product. And this is true whether one examines public schooling in Cuba, North Korea, China, or the United States. (Yes, they do have public schooling in all of those countries.) In fact, it is virtually impossible to find anyone, including President Clinton (who refused to subject his only child to the abuse of public schooling), who defends the dismal results. Perhaps the most telling evidence of public-school failure is the fact that an ever-growing number of public schoolteachers are sending their own children elsewhere.

What is the solution to all of this socialistic mess? A separation of school and state, in the manner that our ancestors separated church and state. Repeal compulsory-attendance laws. Repeal school taxes. Get rid of the school buildings. Fire the school personnel. In short, end all governmental involvement with education. Let the free market reign in the field of learning!

The free market always produces the best of everything — the best automobiles, computers, food, housing, clothing, religions, and the like. It would produce the finest educational system as well. Why should children be denied the chance to have the best education possible — the education that only a free market can produce?

In Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families , Sheldon Richman put it this way:

“A free market in education would feature wide variety, the details of which cannot be foreseen. The entrepreneurial discovery process would have full rein, and people would be free to start and patronize any kind of school. A free market would unleash on behalf of education the creativity that is evident in high technology and other areas of the marketplace. The clash over values that has been fought out in the public schools would end; parents and children would decide for themselves what kind of moral and intellectual education is appropriate.”

Unfortunately, however, many Americans, just like people in Cuba, North Korea, and China, won’t let go of their commitment to socialism. They honestly believe that if they could just be given one more chance, they could finally show the world that socialism could truly be made to work. Thus, they spend much of their life coming up with one reform plan after another in the hope of finally achieving the unachievable — a successful socialistic program.

An example of this is the commitment that American conservatives have to school vouchers. Conservatives often take libertarians to task for wishing to end the public-schooling system and letting the free market prevail in education. They suggest that public schooling can be made to work if everyone, conservatives and libertarians alike, will band together to create what might be called a diversity of “market-oriented coercive devices” to give students and parents more “choices.”

And some conservatives even go so far as to suggest the that libertarians who call for the separation of school and state and who oppose vouchers are actually attacking freedom! For example, last spring, the Heritage Foundation, the premier conservative foundation in the country, published an article entitled “Libertarian Opposition to School Vouchers Is an Attack on Freedom” by Clint Bolick. The article suggests that libertarians who support educational freedom and who oppose vouchers are allies of the likes of Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton. Here’s what Bolick’s Heritage article says in part:

“Libertarian Opposition to School Vouchers is an Attack on Freedom. What do many thoughtful, committed libertarians and Sandra Feldman of the American Federation of teachers have in common. Almost nothing — except their opposition to school choice…. The more zealous and irresponsible libertarian critics oppose vouchers because they wish to see the system of government-run schools collapse altogether. The reality is that the public funding of education enjoys nearly unanimous public support. The most extreme libertarians are missing — indeed, helping to defeat — the chance to end the government-school monopoly and to allow public education to take place outside the public sector…. I do not understand why they fail to see where the interests of freedom lie in this fight. To them I say: When you actively oppose parental choice, please know what you are doing. You are aiding and abetting the most reactionary forces in American society. They trot you out and use you to preserve the status quo. It is a perverse spectacle. Ted Kennedy …. Jesse Jackson … Kweisi Mfume … Eleanor Holmes Norton … Norman Lear … Bill Clinton … Richard Riley … Keith Geiger … Sandra Feldman … Bob Chase. Among those enemies of change, my fellow libertarians do not belong…. Friends, come over to the freedom side.”

The Heritage article primarily addresses a concern that libertarians have raised in opposition to vouchers: that private schools that receive vouchers will become subject to government regulation. The author suggests that while the regulatory threat to private schools would be ever-present and ominous with vouchers, lawsuits could diminish their impact. Moreover, he suggests, nothing could be as bad as the current system; thus, even a regulated private school system would be an improvement. He also suggests that vouchers would bring competition and diversity that would inevitably improve the public-school system.

Some conservatives believe that public schooling is morally wrong and educationally harmful. Thus, they openly defend vouchers as a way to ultimately destroy public schooling. Other conservatives stay silent on the issue. They don’t want the public to know that they are secret advocates of abolishing public schooling. “If people know that I favor ending public schooling, then they won’t take me seriously. And so I must keep my belief secret” is the argument of many of these voucher proponents. Other conservatives are strong defenders of public schooling and view vouchers as a way of improving the system.

The Heritage article clearly criticizes the dismal results of public schooling and then implies that vouchers, by providing competition, are a way to save and actually improve public schools. In other words, socialism in America is unlike socialism in Cuba, North Korea, and China. Because Americans are a can-do people, they are capable of successfully providing a system of what might be called “competitive socialism,” thus making the United States the only country in the world that does not need to dismantle its socialistic system. American socialism, whether it is in education, health care, or the economy, can apparently be preserved and be made to work with what conservatives call “market-oriented reforms.”

Libertarians, of course, know that all of these reforms are doomed to fail. Socialism is — and always has been — an inherently defective idea. Socialism in education, the economy, health care, and elsewhere can never be made to succeed, no matter the reform or the reformer. Vouchers and charter schools are just more reforms in the long tragic history of trying to make the socialism of public schooling succeed.

But let’s assume that conservatives are right. Let’s assume that vouchers improve the public-school system. What would happen then? Unfortunately, government involvement in education would become more entrenched than ever. After all, there would be an entirely new group of opponents to educational freedom — private schools! Can you imagine a private school that is dependent on vouchers calling for the end of vouchers? When was the last time you saw farmers on subsidies calling for the end of their welfare?

Thus, once private schools go on the new voucher dole, an entirely new welfare class will come into existence that will be extremely difficult to rid ourselves of. Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Bill Clinton might be lobbying for the continuation of their welfare programs. But who can doubt that conservatives would be standing next to them lobbying for theirs?

One ailment that afflicts conservatives is that they have lost hope in the battle against American socialism. For decades, conservatives beseeched people overseas to resist communism. And despite what seemed to be a hopeless situation, people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union triumphed in ridding themselves of the Soviet communists.

But long ago, American conservatives threw in the towel in their battle against American socialism because that battle appeared to them to be much more difficult than the battle facing those who were living under communism. Over the years, while still utilizing free-market lingo (e.g, “market-oriented reforms”), they adopted and ultimately embraced the socialistic schemes that pervaded Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, government regulation, income taxation, and the like. And they wanted the children of America sent to government-approved schools so that they could be indoctrinated into living “the life of the lie” — the life that suffers under socialism while falsely believing that it is freedom. And this points to the real reason that many conservatives beseech libertarians to join them in their support of educational wrongdoing. They know that libertarians have not fallen over the edge, as conservatives have. We have not compromised our principles for the sake of popularity, acceptance, or expediency. To us, the possibility that “public funding of education enjoys nearly unanimous public support” is irrelevant. What matters to us libertarians is our integrity and our commitment to moral principles, not the latest public-opinion polls.

And here is where conservatives fail us so miserably. Conservatives never address the fundamental moral issues involved in public schooling. Under what moral authority does the state coerce a parent into subjecting his child to a government-approved education? Under what moral authority does the state seize money that rightfully belongs to one person in order to give it to another? Under what moral authority does the state involve itself in education in any respect whatsoever?

These are the great moral issues that libertarians raise in their opposition to public schooling as well as all other forms of socialism. It is our deep commitment to fundamental moral principles, especially with respect to the proper role of government in society, that separates us from conservatives. And this is one reason that conservatives wish so ardently for us libertarians to abandon our commitment to libertarianism. Our uncompromising dedication to moral principles reminds conservatives of what they have become and what they could have been.

One thing is certain: liberty can never be restored to our country if libertarians do what conservatives have done: surrender our principles for a mess of pottage, give up the battle for liberty, and devote our lives to reforming socialism. Of course, the fight for educational liberty in America — just like the fight for economic liberty — is daunting. But if we libertarians continue to have the courage of our convictions and if we continue to persevere, the restoration of American liberty will ultimately be ours.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.